On the Frontier
Part 3 out of 3
meaningless disruptions of the soil upon the Lone Star claim, and
empty flour sacks and pork barrels in the Lone Star cabin.
They had borne their poverty, if that term could be applied to a
light renunciation of all superfluities in food, dress, or
ornament, ameliorated by the gentle depredations already alluded
to, with unassuming levity. More than that: having segregated
themselves from their fellow-miners of Red Gulch, and entered upon
the possession of the little manzanita-thicketed valley five miles
away, the failure of their enterprise had assumed in their eyes
only the vague significance of the decline and fall of a general
community, and to that extent relieved them of individual
responsibility. It was easier for them to admit that the Lone Star
claim was "played out" than confess to a personal bankruptcy.
Moreover, they still retained the sacred right of criticism of
government, and rose superior in their private opinions to their
own collective wisdom. Each one experienced a grateful sense of
the entire responsibility of the other four in the fate of their
On December 24, 1863, a gentle rain was still falling over the
length and breadth of the Lone Star claim. It had been falling for
several days, had already called a faint spring color to the wan
landscape, repairing with tender touches the ravages wrought by the
proprietors, or charitably covering their faults. The ragged seams
in gulch and canyon lost their harsh outlines, a thin green mantle
faintly clothed the torn and abraded hillside. A few weeks more,
and a veil of forgetfulness would be drawn over the feeble failures
of the Lone Star claim. The charming derelicts themselves,
listening to the raindrops on the roof of their little cabin, gazed
philosophically from the open door, and accepted the prospect as a
moral discharge from their obligations. Four of the five partners
were present. The Right and Left Bowers, Union Mills, and the
It is scarcely necessary to say that not one of these titles was
the genuine name of its possessor. The Right and Left Bowers were
two brothers; their sobriquets, a cheerful adaptation from the
favorite game of euchre, expressing their relative value in the
camp. The mere fact that Union Mills had at one time patched his
trousers with an old flour sack legibly bearing that brand of its
fabrication, was a tempting baptismal suggestion that the other
partners could not forego. The Judge, a singularly inequitable
Missourian, with no knowledge whatever of the law, was an
inspiration of gratuitous irony.
Union Mills, who had been for some time sitting placidly on the
threshold with one leg exposed to the rain, from a sheer indolent
inability to change his position, finally withdrew that weather-
beaten member, and stood up. The movement more or less deranged
the attitudes of the other partners, and was received with cynical
disfavor. It was somewhat remarkable that, although generally
giving the appearance of healthy youth and perfect physical
condition, they one and all simulated the decrepitude of age and
invalidism, and after limping about for a few moments, settled back
again upon their bunks and stools in their former positions. The
Left Bower lazily replaced a bandage that he had worn around his
ankle for weeks without any apparent necessity, and the Judge
scrutinized with tender solicitude the faded cicatrix of a scratch
upon his arm. A passive hypochondria, born of their isolation, was
the last ludicrously pathetic touch to their situation.
The immediate cause of this commotion felt the necessity of an
"It would have been just as easy for you to have stayed outside
with your business leg, instead of dragging it into private life in
that obtrusive way," retorted the Right Bower; "but that exhaustive
effort isn't going to fill the pork barrel. The grocery man at
Dalton says--what's that he said?" he appealed lazily to the Judge.
"Said he reckoned the Lone Star was about played out, and he didn't
want any more in his--thank you!" repeated the Judge with a
mechanical effort of memory utterly devoid of personal or present
"I always suspected that man, after Grimshaw begun to deal with
him," said the Left Bower. "They're just mean enough to join hands
against us." It was a fixed belief of the Lone Star partners that
they were pursued by personal enmities.
"More than likely those new strangers over in the Fork have been
paying cash and filled him up with conceit," said Union Mills,
trying to dry his leg by alternately beating it or rubbing it
against the cabin wall. "Once begin wrong with that kind of snipe
and you drag everybody down with you."
This vague conclusion was received with dead silence. Everybody
had become interested in the speaker's peculiar method of drying
his leg, to the exclusion of the previous topic. A few offered
criticism, no one assistance.
"Who did the grocery man say that to?" asked the Right Bower,
finally returning to the question.
"The Old man," answered the Judge.
"Of course," ejaculated the Right Bower sarcastically.
"Of course," echoed the other partners together. "That's like him.
The Old Man all over!"
It did not appear exactly what was like the Old Man, or why it was
like him, but generally that he alone was responsible for the
grocery man's defection. It was put more concisely by Union Mills.
"That comes of letting him go there! It's just a fair provocation
to any man to have the Old Man sent to him. They can't, sorter,
restrain themselves at him. He's enough to spoil the credit of the
"That's so," chimed in the Judge. "And look at his prospecting.
Why, he was out two nights last week, all night, prospecting in the
moonlight for blind leads, just out of sheer foolishness."
"It was quite enough for me," broke in the Left Bower, "when the
other day, you remember when, he proposed to us white men to settle
down to plain ground sluicing, making 'grub' wages just like any
Chinaman. It just showed his idea of the Lone Star claim."
"Well, I never said it afore," added Union Mills, "but when that
one of the Mattison boys came over here to examine the claim with
an eye to purchasin', it was the Old Man that took the conceit out
of him. He just as good as admitted that a lot of work had got to
be done afore any pay ore could be realized. Never even asked him
over to the shanty here to jine us in a friendly game; just kept
him, so to speak, to himself. And naturally the Mattisons didn't
A silence followed, broken only by the rain monotonously falling on
the roof, and occasionally through the broad adobe chimney, where
it provoked a retaliating hiss and splutter from the dying embers
of the hearth. The Right Bower, with a sudden access of energy,
drew the empty barrel before him, and taking a pack of well-worn
cards from his pocket, began to make a "solitaire" upon the lid.
The others gazed at him with languid interest.
"Makin' it for anythin'?" asked Mills.
The Right Bower nodded.
The Judge and Left Bower, who were partly lying in their respective
bunks, sat up to get a better view of the game. Union Mills slowly
disengaged himself from the wall and leaned over the "solitaire"
player. The Right Bower turned the last card in a pause of almost
thrilling suspense, and clapped it down on the lid with fateful
"It went!" said the Judge in a voice of hushed respect. "What did
you make it for?" he almost whispered.
"To know if we'd make the break we talked about and vamose the
ranch. It's the FIFTH time today," continued the Right Bower in a
voice of gloomy significance. "And it went agin bad cards too."
"I ain't superstitious," said the Judge, with awe and fatuity
beaming from every line of his credulous face, "but it's flyin' in
the face of Providence to go agin such signs as that."
"Make it again, to see if the Old Man must go," suggested the Left
The suggestion was received with favor, the three men gathering
breathlessly around the player. Again the fateful cards were
shuffled deliberately, placed in their mysterious combination, with
the same ominous result. Yet everybody seemed to breathe more
freely, as if relieved from some responsibility, the Judge
accepting this manifest expression of Providence with resigned
"Yes, gentlemen," resumed the Left Bower, serenely, as if a calm
legal decision had just been recorded, "we must not let any
foolishness or sentiment get mixed up with this thing, but look at
it like business men. The only sensible move is to get up and get
out of the camp."
"And the Old Man?" queried the Judge.
"The Old Man--hush! he's coming."
The doorway was darkened by a slight lissome shadow. It was the
absent partner, otherwise known as "the Old Man." Need it be added
that he was a BOY of nineteen, with a slight down just clothing his
"The creek is up over the ford, and I had to 'shin' up a willow on
the bank and swing myself across," he said, with a quick, frank
laugh; "but all the same, boys, it's going to clear up in about an
hour, you bet. It's breaking away over Bald Mountain, and there's
a sun flash on a bit of snow on Lone Peak. Look! you can see it
from here. It's for all the world like Noah's dove just landed on
Mount Ararat. It's a good omen."
From sheer force of habit the men had momentarily brightened up at
the Old Man's entrance. But the unblushing exhibition of degrading
superstition shown in the last sentence recalled their just
severity. They exchanged meaning glances. Union Mills uttered
hopelessly to himself: "Hell's full of such omens."
Too occupied with his subject to notice this ominous reception, the
Old Man continued: "I reckon I struck a fresh lead in the new
grocery man at the Crossing. He says he'll let the Judge have a
pair of boots on credit, but he can't send them over here; and
considering that the Judge has got to try them anyway, it don't
seem to be asking too much for the Judge to go over there. He says
he'll give us a barrel of pork and a bag of flour if we'll give him
the right of using our tail-race and clean out the lower end of it."
"It's the work of a Chinaman, and a four days' job," broke in the
"It took one white man only two hours to clean out a third of it,"
retorted the Old Man triumphantly, "for I pitched in at once with a
pick he let me have on credit, and did that amount of work this
morning, and told him the rest of you boys would finish it this
A slight gesture from the Right Bower checked an angry exclamation
from the Left. The Old Man did not notice either, but, knitting
his smooth young brow in a paternally reflective fashion, went on:
"You'll have to get a new pair of trousers, Mills, but as he
doesn't keep clothing, we'll have to get some canvas and cut you
out a pair. I traded off the beans he let me have for some tobacco
for the Right Bower at the other shop, and got them to throw in a
new pack of cards. These are about played out. We'll be wanting
some brushwood for the fire; there's a heap in the hollow. Who's
going to bring it in? It's the Judge's turn, isn't it? Why,
what's the matter with you all?"
The restraint and evident uneasiness of his companions had at last
touched him. He turned his frank young eyes upon them; they
glanced helplessly at each other. Yet his first concern was for
them, his first instinct paternal and protecting. He ran his eyes
quickly over them; they were all there and apparently in their
usual condition. "Anything wrong with the claim?" he suggested.
Without looking at him the Right Bower rose, leaned against the
open door with his hands behind him and his face towards the
landscape, and said, apparently to the distant prospect: "The
claim's played out, the partnership's played out, and the sooner we
skedaddle out of this the better. If," he added, turning to the
Old Man, "if YOU want to stay, if you want to do Chinaman's work at
Chinaman's wages, if you want to hang on to the charity of the
traders at the Crossing, you can do it, and enjoy the prospects and
the Noah's doves alone. But we're calculatin' to step out of it."
"But I haven't said I wanted to do it ALONE," protested the Old Man
with a gesture of bewilderment.
"If these are your general ideas of the partnership," continued the
Right Bower, clinging to the established hypothesis of the other
partners for support, "it ain't ours, and the only way we can prove
it is to stop the foolishness right here. We calculated to
dissolve the partnership and strike out for ourselves elsewhere.
You're no longer responsible for us, nor we for you. And we reckon
it's the square thing to leave you the claim and the cabin, and all
it contains. To prevent any trouble with the traders, we've drawn
up a paper here--"
"With a bonus of fifty thousand dollars each down, and the rest to
be settled on my children," interrupted the Old Man, with a half-
uneasy laugh. "Of course. But--" he stopped suddenly, the blood
dropped from his fresh cheek, and he again glanced quickly round
the group. "I don't think--I--I quite sabe, boys," he added, with
a slight tremor of voice and lip. "If it's a conundrum, ask me an
Any lingering doubt he might have had of their meaning was
dispelled by the Judge. "It's about the softest thing you kin drop
into, Old Man," he said confidentially; "if I hadn't promised the
other boys to go with them, and if I didn't need the best medical
advice in Sacramento for my lungs, I'd just enjoy staying with
"It gives a sorter freedom to a young fellow like you, Old Man,
like goin' into the world on your own capital, that every
Californian boy hasn't got," said Union Mills, patronizingly.
"Of course it's rather hard papers on us, you know, givin' up
everything, so to speak; but it's for your good, and we ain't goin'
back on you," said the Left Bower, "are we, boys?"
The color had returned to the Old Man's face a little more quickly
and freely than usual. He picked up the hat he had cast down, put
it on carefully over his brown curls, drew the flap down on the
side towards his companions, and put his hands in his pockets.
"All right," he said, in a slightly altered voice. "When do you
"To-day," answered the Left Bower. "We calculate to take a
moonlight pasear over to the Cross Roads and meet the down stage at
about twelve to-night. There's plenty of time yet," he added, with
a slight laugh; "it's only three o'clock now."
There was a dead silence. Even the rain withheld its continuous
patter, a dumb, gray film covered the ashes of the hushed hearth.
For the first time the Right Bower exhibited some slight
"I reckon it's held up for a spell," he said, ostentatiously
examining the weather, "and we might as well take a run round the
claim to see if we've forgotten nothing. Of course, we'll be back
again," he added hastily, without looking at the Old Man, "before
we go, you know."
The others began to look for their hats, but so awkwardly and with
such evident preoccupation of mind that it was not at first
discovered that the Judge had his already on. This raised a laugh,
as did also a clumsy stumble of Union Mills against the pork
barrel, although that gentleman took refuge from his confusion and
secured a decent retreat by a gross exaggeration of his lameness,
as he limped after the Right Bower. The Judge whistled feebly.
The Left Bower, in a more ambitious effort to impart a certain
gayety to his exit, stopped on the threshold and said, as if in
arch confidence to his companions, "Darned if the Old Man don't
look two inches higher since he became a proprietor," laughed
patronizingly, and vanished.
If the newly-made proprietor had increased in stature, he had not
otherwise changed his demeanor. He remained in the same attitude
until the last figure disappeared behind the fringe of buckeye that
hid the distant highway. Then he walked slowly to the fire-place,
and, leaning against the chimney, kicked the dying embers together
with his foot. Something dropped and spattered in the film of hot
ashes. Surely the rain had not yet ceased!
His high color had already fled except for a spot on either cheek-
bone that lent a brightness to his eyes. He glanced around the
cabin. It looked familiar and yet strange. Rather, it looked
strange BECAUSE still familiar, and therefore incongruous with the
new atmosphere that surrounded it--discordant with the echo of
their last meeting, and painfully accenting the change. There were
the four "bunks," or sleeping berths, of his companions, each still
bearing some traces of the individuality of its late occupant with
a dumb loyalty that seemed to make their light-hearted defection
monstrous. In the dead ashes of the Judge's pipe, scattered on his
shelf, still lived his old fire; in the whittled and carved edges
of the Left Bower's bunk still were the memories of bygone days of
delicious indolence; in the bullet-holes clustered round a knot of
one of the beams there was still the record of the Right Bower's
old-time skill and practice; in the few engravings of female
loveliness stuck upon each headboard there were the proofs of their
old extravagant devotion--all a mute protest to the change.
He remembered how, a fatherless, truant schoolboy, he had drifted
into their adventurous, nomadic life, itself a life of grown-up
truancy like his own, and became one of that gypsy family. How
they had taken the place of relations and household in his boyish
fancy, filling it with the unsubstantial pageantry of a child's
play at grown-up existence, he knew only too well. But how, from
being a pet and protege, he had gradually and unconsciously
asserted his own individuality and taken upon his younger shoulders
not only a poet's keen appreciation of that life, but its actual
responsibilities and half-childish burdens, he never suspected. He
had fondly believed that he was a neophyte in their ways, a novice
in their charming faith and indolent creed, and they had encouraged
it; now their renunciation of that faith could only be an excuse
for a renunciation of HIM. The poetry that had for two years
invested the material and sometimes even mean details of their
existence was too much a part of himself to be lightly dispelled.
The lesson of those ingenuous moralists failed, as such lessons are
apt to fail; their discipline provoked but did not subdue; a rising
indignation, stirred by a sense of injury, mounted to his cheek and
eyes. It was slow to come, but was none the less violent that it
had been preceded by the benumbing shock of shame and pride.
I hope I shall not prejudice the reader's sympathies if my duty as
a simple chronicler compels me to state, therefore, that the sober
second thought of this gentle poet was to burn down the cabin on
the spot with all its contents. This yielded to a milder counsel--
waiting for the return of the party, challenging the Right Bower, a
duel to the death, perhaps himself the victim, with a crushing
explanation in extremis, "It seems we are ONE too many. No matter;
it is settled now. Farewell!" Dimly remembering, however, that
there was something of this in the last well-worn novel they had
read together, and that his antagonist might recognize it, or even
worse, anticipate it himself, the idea was quickly rejected.
Besides, the opportunity for an apotheosis of self-sacrifice was
past. Nothing remained now but to refuse the proffered bribe of
claim and cabin by letter, for he must not wait their return. He
tore a leaf from a blotted diary, begun and abandoned long since,
and essayed to write. Scrawl after scrawl was torn up, until his
fury had cooled down to a frigid third personality. "Mr. John Ford
regrets to inform his late partners that their tender of house, of
furniture," however, seemed too inconsistent with the pork-barrel
table he was writing on; a more eloquent renunciation of their
offer became frivolous and idiotic from a caricature of Union
Mills, label and all, that appeared suddenly on the other side of
the leaf; and when he at last indited a satisfactory and
impassioned exposition of his feelings, the legible addendum of
"Oh, ain't you glad you're out of the wilderness!"--the forgotten
first line of a popular song, which no scratching would erase--
seemed too like an ironical postscript to be thought of for a
moment. He threw aside his pen and cast the discordant record of
past foolish pastime into the dead ashes of the hearth.
How quiet it was. With the cessation of the rain the wind too had
gone down, and scarcely a breath of air came through the open door.
He walked to the threshold and gazed on the hushed prospect. In
this listless attitude he was faintly conscious of a distant
reverberation, a mere phantom of sound--perhaps the explosion of a
distant blast in the hills--that left the silence more marked and
oppressive. As he turned again into the cabin a change seemed to
have come over it. It already looked old and decayed. The
loneliness of years of desertion seemed to have taken possession of
it; the atmosphere of dry rot was in the beams and rafters. To his
excited fancy the few disordered blankets and articles of clothing
seemed dropping to pieces; in one of the bunks there was a hideous
resemblance in the longitudinal heap of clothing to a withered and
mummied corpse. So it might look in after years when some passing
stranger--but he stopped. A dread of the place was beginning to
creep over him; a dread of the days to come, when the monotonous
sunshine should lay bare the loneliness of these walls; the long,
long days of endless blue and cloudless, overhanging solitude;
summer days when the wearying, incessant trade winds should sing
around that empty shell and voice its desolation. He gathered
together hastily a few articles that were especially his own--
rather that the free communion of the camp, from indifference or
accident, had left wholly to him. He hesitated for a moment over
his rifle, but, scrupulous in his wounded pride, turned away and
left the familiar weapon that in the dark days had so often
provided the dinner or breakfast of the little household. Candor
compels me to state that his equipment was not large nor eminently
practical. His scant pack was a light weight for even his young
shoulders, but I fear he thought more of getting away from the Past
than providing for the Future.
With this vague but sole purpose he left the cabin, and almost
mechanically turned his steps towards the creek he had crossed that
morning. He knew that by this route he would avoid meeting his
companions; its difficulties and circuitousness would exercise his
feverish limbs and give him time for reflection. He had determined
to leave the claim, but whence he had not yet considered. He
reached the bank of the creek where he had stood two hours before;
it seemed to him two years. He looked curiously at his reflection
in one of the broad pools of overflow, and fancied he looked older.
He watched the rush and outset of the turbid current hurrying to
meet the South Fork, and to eventually lose itself in the yellow
Sacramento. Even in his preoccupation he was impressed with a
likeness to himself and his companions in this flood that had burst
its peaceful boundaries. In the drifting fragments of one of their
forgotten flumes washed from the bank, he fancied he saw an omen of
the disintegration and decay of the Lone Star claim.
The strange hush in the air that he had noticed before--a calm so
inconsistent with that hour and the season as to seem portentous--
became more marked in contrast to the feverish rush of the
turbulent water-course. A few clouds lazily huddled in the west
apparently had gone to rest with the sun on beds of somnolent
poppies. There was a gleam as of golden water everywhere along the
horizon, washing out the cold snowpeaks, and drowning even the
rising moon. The creek caught it here and there, until, in grim
irony, it seemed to bear their broken sluice-boxes and useless
engines on the very Pactolian stream they had been hopefully
created to direct and carry. But by some peculiar trick of the
atmosphere, the perfect plenitude of that golden sunset glory was
lavished on the rugged sides and tangled crest of the Lone Star
mountain. That isolated peak, the landmark of their claim, the
gaunt monument of their folly, transfigured in the evening
splendor, kept its radiance unquenched long after the glow had
fallen from the encompassing skies, and when at last the rising
moon, step by step, put out the fires along the winding valley and
plains, and crept up the bosky sides of the canyon, the vanishing
sunset was lost only to reappear as a golden crown.
The eyes of the young man were fixed upon it with more than a
momentary picturesque interest. It had been the favorite ground of
his prospecting exploits, its lowest flank had been scarred in the
old enthusiastic days with hydraulic engines, or pierced with
shafts, but its central position in the claim and its superior
height had always given it a commanding view of the extent of their
valley and its approaches, and it was this practical pre-eminence
that alone attracted him at that moment. He knew that from its
crest he would be able to distinguish the figures of his companions,
as they crossed the valley near the cabin, in the growing moonlight.
Thus he could avoid encountering them on his way to the high road,
and yet see them, perhaps, for the last time. Even in his sense of
injury there was a strange satisfaction in the thought.
The ascent was toilsome, but familiar. All along the dim trail he
was accompanied by gentler memories of the past, that seemed, like
the faint odor of spiced leaves and fragrant grasses wet with the
rain and crushed beneath his ascending tread, to exhale the sweeter
perfume in his effort to subdue or rise above them. There was the
thicket of manzanita, where they had broken noonday bread together;
here was the rock beside their maiden shaft, where they had poured
a wild libation in boyish enthusiasm of success; and here the ledge
where their first flag, a red shirt heroically sacrificed, was
displayed from a long-handled shovel to the gaze of admirers below.
When he at last reached the summit, the mysterious hush was still
in the air, as if in breathless sympathy with his expedition. In
the west, the plain was faintly illuminated, but disclosed no
moving figures. He turned towards the rising moon, and moved
slowly to the eastern edge. Suddenly he stopped. Another step
would have been his last! He stood upon the crumbling edge of a
precipice. A landslip had taken place on the eastern flank,
leaving the gaunt ribs and fleshless bones of Lone Star mountain
bare in the moonlight. He understood now the strange rumble and
reverberation he had heard; he understood now the strange hush of
bird and beast in brake and thicket!
Although a single rapid glance convinced him that the slide had
taken place in an unfrequented part of the mountain, above an
inaccessible canyon, and reflection assured him his companions
could not have reached that distance when it took place, a feverish
impulse led him to descend a few rods in the track of the
avalanche. The frequent recurrence of outcrop and angle made this
comparatively easy. Here he called aloud; the feeble echo of his
own voice seemed only a dull impertinence to the significant
silence. He turned to reascend; the furrowed flank of the mountain
before him lay full in the moonlight. To his excited fancy, a
dozen luminous star-like points in the rocky crevices started into
life as he faced them. Throwing his arm over the ledge above him,
he supported himself for a moment by what appeared to be a
projection of the solid rock. It trembled slightly. As he raised
himself to its level, his heart stopped beating. It was simply a
fragment detached from the outcrop, lying loosely on the ledge but
upholding him by ITS OWN WEIGHT ONLY. He examined it with
trembling fingers; the encumbering soil fell from its sides and
left its smoothed and worn protuberances glistening in the
moonlight. It was virgin gold!
Looking back upon that moment afterwards, he remembered that he was
not dazed, dazzled, or startled. It did not come to him as a
discovery or an accident, a stroke of chance or a caprice of
fortune. He saw it all in that supreme moment; Nature had worked
out their poor deduction. What their feeble engines had essayed
spasmodically and helplessly against the curtain of soil that hid
the treasure, the elements had achieved with mightier but more
patient forces. The slow sapping of the winter rains had loosened
the soil from the auriferous rock, even while the swollen stream
was carrying their impotent and shattered engines to the sea.
What mattered that his single arm could not lift the treasure he
had found! What mattered that to unfix those glittering stars
would still tax both skill and patience! The work was done, the
goal was reached! even his boyish impatience was content with that.
He rose slowly to his feet, unstrapped his long-handled shovel from
his back, secured it in the crevice, and quietly regained the
It was all his own! His own by right of discovery under the law of
the land, and without accepting a favor from THEM. He recalled
even the fact that it was HIS prospecting on the mountain that
first suggested the existence of gold in the outcrop and the use of
the hydraulic. HE had never abandoned that belief, whatever the
others had done. He dwelt somewhat indignantly to himself on this
circumstance, and half unconsciously faced defiantly towards the
plain below. But it was sleeping peacefully in the full sight of
the moon, without life or motion. He looked at the stars; it was
still far from midnight. His companions had no doubt long since
returned to the cabin to prepare for their midnight journey. They
were discussing him, perhaps laughing at him, or worse, pitying him
and his bargain. Yet here was his bargain! A slight laugh he gave
vent to here startled him a little, it sounded so hard and so
unmirthful, and so unlike, as he oddly fancied, what he really
THOUGHT. But WHAT did he think?
Nothing mean or revengeful; no, they never would say THAT. When he
had taken out all the surface gold and put the mine in working
order, he would send them each a draft for a thousand dollars. Of
course, if they were ever ill or poor he would do more. One of the
first, the very first things he should do would be to send them
each a handsome gun and tell them that he only asked in return the
old-fashioned rifle that once was his. Looking back at the moment
in after years, he wondered that, with this exception, he made no
plans for his own future, or the way he should dispose of his newly
acquired wealth. This was the more singular as it had been the
custom of the five partners to lie awake at night, audibly
comparing with each other what they would do in case they made a
strike. He remembered how, Alnaschar-like, they nearly separated
once over a difference in the disposal of a hundred thousand
dollars that they never had, nor expected to have. He remembered
how Union Mills always began his career as a millionnaire by a
"square meal" at Delmonico's; how the Right Bower's initial step
was always a trip home "to see his mother"; how the Left Bower
would immediately placate the parents of his beloved with priceless
gifts (it may be parenthetically remarked that the parents and the
beloved one were as hypothetical as the fortune); and how the Judge
would make his first start as a capitalist by breaking a certain
faro bank in Sacramento. He himself had been equally eloquent in
extravagant fancy in those penniless days, he who now was quite
cold and impassive beside the more extravagant reality.
How different it might have been! If they had only waited a day
longer! if they had only broken their resolves to him kindly and
parted in good will! How he would long ere this have rushed to
greet them with the joyful news! How they would have danced around
it, sung themselves hoarse, laughed down their enemies, and run up
the flag triumphantly on the summit of the Lone Star Mountain! How
they would have crowned him "the Old Man," "the hero of the camp!"
How he would have told them the whole story; how some strange
instinct had impelled him to ascend the summit, and how another
step on that summit would have precipitated him into the canyon!
And how--but what if somebody else, Union Mills or the Judge, had
been the first discoverer? Might they not have meanly kept the
secret from him; have selfishly helped themselves and done--
"What YOU are doing now."
The hot blood rushed to his cheek, as if a strange voice were at
his ear. For a moment he could not believe that it came from his
own pale lips until he found himself speaking. He rose to his
feet, tingling with shame, and began hurriedly to descend the
He would go to them, tell them of his discovery, let them give him
his share, and leave them forever. It was the only thing to be
done, strange that he had not thought of it at once. Yet it was
hard, very hard and cruel to be forced to meet them again. What
had he done to suffer this mortification? For a moment he actually
hated this vulgar treasure that had forever buried under its gross
ponderability the light and careless past, and utterly crushed out
the poetry of their old, indolent, happy existence.
He was sure to find them waiting at the Cross Roads where the coach
came past. It was three miles away, yet he could get there in time
if he hastened. It was a wise and practical conclusion of his
evening's work, a lame and impotent conclusion to his evening's
indignation. No matter. They would perhaps at first think he had
come to weakly follow them, perhaps they would at first doubt his
story. No matter. He bit his lips to keep down the foolish rising
tears, but still went blindly forward.
He saw not the beautiful night, cradled in the dark hills, swathed
in luminous mists, and hushed in the awe of its own loveliness!
Here and there the moon had laid her calm face on lake and
overflow, and gone to sleep embracing them, until the whole plain
seemed to be lifted into infinite quiet. Walking on as in a dream,
the black, impenetrable barriers of skirting thickets opened and
gave way to vague distances that it appeared impossible to reach,
dim vistas that seemed unapproachable. Gradually he seemed himself
to become a part of the mysterious night. He was becoming as
pulseless, as calm, as passionless.
What was that? A shot in the direction of the cabin! yet so faint,
so echoless, so ineffective in the vast silence, that he would have
thought it his fancy but for the strange instinctive jar upon his
sensitive nerves. Was it an accident, or was it an intentional
signal to him? He stopped; it was not repeated, the silence
reasserted itself, but this time with an ominous death-like
suggestion. A sudden and terrible thought crossed his mind. He
cast aside his pack and all encumbering weight, took a deep breath,
lowered his head and darted like a deer in the direction of the
The exodus of the seceding partners of the Lone Star claim had been
scarcely an imposing one. For the first five minutes after
quitting the cabin, the procession was straggling and vagabond.
Unwonted exertion had exaggerated the lameness of some, and
feebleness of moral purpose had predisposed the others to obtrusive
musical exhibition. Union Mills limped and whistled with affected
abstraction; the Judge whistled and limped with affected
earnestness. The Right Bower led the way with some show of
definite design; the Left Bower followed with his hands in his
pockets. The two feebler natures, drawn together in unconscious
sympathy, looked vaguely at each other for support.
"You see," said the Judge, suddenly, as if triumphantly concluding
an argument, "there ain't anything better for a young fellow than
independence. Nature, so to speak, points the way. Look at the
"There's a skunk hereabouts," said Union Mills, who was supposed to
be gifted with aristocratically sensitive nostrils, "within ten
miles of this place; like as not crossing the Ridge. It's always
my luck to happen out just at such times. I don't see the
necessity anyhow of trapesing round the claim now, if we calculate
to leave it to-night."
Both men waited to observe if the suggestion was taken up by the
Right and Left Bower moodily plodding ahead. No response
following, the Judge shamelessly abandoned his companion.
"You wouldn't stand snoopin' round instead of lettin' the Old Man
get used to the idea alone? No; I could see all along that he was
takin' it in, takin' it in, kindly but slowly, and I reckoned the
best thing for us to do was to git up and git until he'd got round
it." The Judge's voice was slightly raised for the benefit of the
two before him.
"Didn't he say," remarked the Right Bower, stopping suddenly and
facing the others, "didn't he say that that new trader was goin' to
let him have some provisions anyway?"
Union Mills turned appealingly to the Judge; that gentleman was
forced to reply, "Yes; I remember distinctly he said it. It was
one of the things I was particular about on his account," responded
the Judge, with the air of having arranged it all himself with the
new trader. "I remember I was easier in my mind about it."
"But didn't he say," queried the Left Bower, also stopping short,
"suthin' about it's being contingent on our doing some work on the
The Judge turned for support to Union Mills, who, however, under
the hollow pretense of preparing for a long conference, had
luxuriously seated himself on a stump. The Judge sat down also,
and replied, hesitatingly, "Well, yes! Us or him."
"Us or him," repeated the Right Bower, with gloomy irony. "And you
ain't quite clear in your mind, are you, if YOU haven't done the
work already? You're just killing yourself with this spontaneous,
promiscuous, and premature overwork; that's what's the matter with
"I reckon I heard somebody say suthin' about it's being a
Chinaman's three-day job," interpolated the Left Bower, with equal
irony, "but I ain't quite clear in my mind about that."
"It'll be a sorter distraction for the Old Man," said Union Mills,
feebly--"kinder take his mind off his loneliness."
Nobody taking the least notice of the remark, union Mills stretched
out his legs more comfortably and took out his pipe. He had
scarcely done so when the Right Bower, wheeling suddenly, set off
in the direction of the creek. The Left Bower, after a slight
pause, followed without a word. The Judge, wisely conceiving it
better to join the stronger party, ran feebly after him, and left
Union Mills to bring up a weak and vacillating rear.
Their course, diverging from Lone Star Mountain, led them now
directly to the bend of the creek, the base of their old
ineffectual operations. Here was the beginning of the famous tail-
race that skirted the new trader's claim, and then lost its way in
a swampy hollow. It was choked with debris; a thin, yellow stream
that once ran through it seemed to have stopped work when they did,
and gone into greenish liquidation.
They had scarcely spoken during this brief journey, and had
received no other explanation from the Right Bower, who led them,
than that afforded by his mute example when he reached the race.
Leaping into it without a word, he at once began to clear away the
broken timbers and driftwood. Fired by the spectacle of what
appeared to be a new and utterly frivolous game, the men gayly
leaped after him, and were soon engaged in a fascinating struggle
with the impeded race. The Judge forgot his lameness in springing
over a broken sluice-box; Union Mills forgot his whistle in a happy
imitation of a Chinese coolie's song. Nevertheless, after ten
minutes of this mild dissipation, the pastime flagged; Union Mills
was beginning to rub his leg when a distant rumble shook the earth.
The men looked at each other; the diversion was complete; a languid
discussion of the probabilities of its being an earthquake or a
blast followed, in the midst of which the Right Bower, who was
working a little in advance of the others, uttered a warning cry
and leaped from the race. His companions had barely time to follow
before a sudden and inexplicable rise in the waters of the creek
sent a swift irruption of the flood through the race. In an
instant its choked and impeded channel was cleared, the race was
free, and the scattered debris of logs and timber floated upon its
easy current. Quick to take advantage of this labor-saving
phenomenon, the Lone Star partners sprang into the water, and by
disentangling and directing the eddying fragments completed their
"The Old Man oughter been here to see this," said the Left Bower;
"it's just one o' them climaxes of poetic justice he's always
huntin' up. It's easy to see what's happened. One o' them high-
toned shrimps over in the Excelsior claim has put a blast in too
near the creek. He's tumbled the bank into the creek and sent the
back water down here just to wash out our race. That's what I call
"And who was it advised us to dam the creek below the race and make
it do the thing?" asked the Right Bower, moodily.
"That was one of the Old Man's ideas, I reckon," said the Left
"And you remember," broke in the Judge with animation, "I allus
said, 'Go slow, go slow. You just hold on and suthin' will
happen.' And," he added, triumphantly, "you see suthin' has
happened. I don't want to take credit to myself, but I reckoned on
them Excelsior boys bein' fools, and took the chances."
"And what if I happen to know that the Excelsior boys ain't
blastin' to-day?" said the Right Bower, sarcastically.
As the Judge had evidently based his hypothesis on the alleged fact
of a blast, he deftly evaded the point. "I ain't saying the Old
Man's head ain't level on some things; he wants a little more sabe
of the world. He's improved a good deal in euchre lately, and in
poker--well! he's got that sorter dreamy, listenin'-to-the-angels
kind o' way that you can't exactly tell whether he's bluffin' or
has got a full hand. Hasn't he?" he asked, appealing to Union
But that gentleman, who had been watching the dark face of the
Right Bower, preferred to take what he believed to be his cue from
him. "That ain't the question," he said virtuously; "we ain't
takin' this step to make a card sharp out of him. We're not doin'
Chinamen's work in this race to-day for that. No, sir! We're
teachin' him to paddle his own canoe." Not finding the sympathetic
response he looked for in the Right Bower's face, he turned to the
"I reckon we were teachin' him our canoe was too full," was the
Left Bower's unexpected reply. "That's about the size of it."
The Right Bower shot a rapid glance under his brows at his brother.
The latter, with his hands in his pockets, stared unconsciously at
the rushing waters, and then quietly turned away. The Right Bower
followed him. "Are you goin' back on us?" he asked.
"Are you?" responded the other.
"NO, then it is," returned the Left Bower quietly. The elder
brother hesitated in half-angry embarrassment.
"Then what did you mean by saying we reckoned our canoe was too
"Wasn't that our idea?" returned the Left Bower, indifferently.
Confounded by this practical expression of his own unformulated
good intentions, the Right Bower was staggered.
"Speakin' of the Old Man," broke in the Judge, with characteristic
infelicity, "I reckon he'll sort o' miss us, times like these. We
were allers runnin' him and bedevilin' him, after work, just to get
him excited and amusin', and he'll kinder miss that sort o'
stimulatin'. I reckon we'll miss it too, somewhat. Don't you
remember, boys, the night we put up that little sell on him and
made him believe we'd struck it rich in the bank of the creek, and
got him so conceited, he wanted to go off and settle all our debts
"And how I came bustin' into the cabin with a pan full of iron
pyrites and black sand," chuckled Union Mills, continuing the
reminiscences, "and how them big gray eyes of his nearly bulged out
of his head. Well, it's some satisfaction to know we did our duty
by the young fellow even in those little things." He turned for
confirmation of their general disinterestedness to the Right Bower,
but he was already striding away, uneasily conscious of the lazy
following of the Left Bower, like a laggard conscience at his back.
This movement again threw Union Mills and the Judge into feeble
complicity in the rear, as the procession slowly straggled homeward
from the creek.
Night had fallen. Their way lay through the shadow of Lone Star
Mountain, deepened here and there by the slight, bosky ridges that,
starting from its base, crept across the plain like vast roots of
its swelling trunk. The shadows were growing blacker as the moon
began to assert itself over the rest of the valley, when the Right
Bower halted suddenly on one of these ridges. The Left Bower
lounged up to him, and stopped also, while the two others came up
and completed the group.
"There's no light in the shanty," said the Right Bower in a low
voice, half to himself and, half in answer to their inquiring
attitude. The men followed the direction of his finger. In the
distance the black outline of the Lone Star cabin stood out
distinctly in the illumined space. There was the blank, sightless,
external glitter of moonlight on its two windows that seemed to
reflect its dim vacancy, empty alike of light, and warmth, and
"That's sing'lar," said the Judge in an awed whisper.
The Left Bower, by simply altering the position of his hands in his
trousers' pockets, managed to suggest that he knew perfectly the
meaning of it, had always known it; but that being now, so to
speak, in the hands of Fate, he was callous to it. This much, at
least, the elder brother read in his attitude. But anxiety at that
moment was the controlling impulse of the Right Bower, as a certain
superstitious remorse was the instinct of the two others, and
without heeding the cynic, the three started at a rapid pace for
They reached it silently, as the moon, now riding high in the
heavens, seemed to touch it with the tender grace and hushed repose
of a tomb. It was with something of this feeling that the Right
Bower softly pushed open the door; it was with something of this
dread that the two others lingered on the threshold, until the
Right Bower, after vainly trying to stir the dead embers on the
hearth into life with his foot, struck a match and lit their
solitary candle. Its flickering light revealed the familiar
interior unchanged in aught but one thing. The bunk that the Old
Man had occupied was stripped of its blankets; the few cheap
ornaments and photographs were gone; the rude poverty of the bare
boards and scant pallet looked up at them unrelieved by the bright
face and gracious youth that had once made them tolerable. In the
grim irony of that exposure, their own penury was doubly conscious.
The little knapsack, the teacup and coffee-pot that had hung near
his bed, were gone also. The most indignant protest, the most
pathetic of the letters he had composed and rejected, whose torn
fragments still littered the floor, could never have spoken with
the eloquence of this empty space! The men exchanged no words: the
solitude of the cabin, instead of drawing them together, seemed to
isolate each one in selfish distrust of the others. Even the
unthinking garrulity of Union Mills and the Judge was checked. A
moment later, when the Left Bower entered the cabin, his presence
was scarcely noticed.
The silence was broken by a joyous exclamation from the Judge. He
had discovered the Old Man's rifle in the corner, where it had been
at first overlooked. "He ain't gone yet, gentlemen--for yer's his
rifle," he broke in, with a feverish return of volubility, and a
high excited falsetto. "He wouldn't have left this behind. No! I
knowed it from the first. He's just outside a bit, foraging for
wood and water. No, sir! Coming along here I said to Union Mills--
didn't I?--'Bet your life the Old Man's not far off, even if he
ain't in the cabin.' Why, the moment I stepped foot--"
"And I said coming along," interrupted Union Mills, with equally
reviving mendacity, 'Like as not he's hangin' round yer and lyin'
low just to give us a surprise.' He! ho!"
"He's gone for good, and he left that rifle here on purpose," said
the Left Bower in a low voice, taking the weapon almost tenderly in
"Drop it, then!" said the Right Bower. The voice was that of his
brother, but suddenly changed with passion. The two other partners
instinctively drew back in alarm.
"I'll not leave it here for the first comer," said the Left Bower,
calmly, "because we've been fools and he too. It's too good a
weapon for that."
"Drop it, I say!" said the Right Bower, with a savage stride
The younger brother brought the rifle to a half charge with a white
face but a steady eye.
"Stop where you are!" he said collectedly. "Don't row with ME,
because you haven't either the grit to stick to your ideas or the
heart to confess them wrong. We've followed your lead, and--here
we are! The camp's broken up--the Old Man's gone--and we're going.
And as for the d----d rifle--"
"Drop it, do you hear!" shouted the Right Bower, clinging to that
one idea with the blind pertinacity of rage and a losing cause.
The Left Bower drew back, but his brother had seized the barrel
with both hands. There was a momentary struggle, a flash through
the half-lighted cabin, and a shattering report. The two men fell
back from each other; the rifle dropped on the floor between them.
The whole thing was over so quickly that the other two partners had
not had time to obey their common impulse to separate them, and
consequently even now could scarcely understand what had passed.
It was over so quickly that the two actors themselves walked back
to their places, scarcely realizing their own act.
A dead silence followed. The Judge and Union Mills looked at each
other in dazed astonishment, and then nervously set about their
former habits, apparently in that fatuous belief common to such
natures, that they were ignoring a painful situation. The Judge
drew the barrel towards him, picked up the cards, and began
mechanically to "make a patience," on which Union Mills gazed with
ostentatious interest, but with eyes furtively conscious of the
rigid figure of the Right Bower by the chimney and the abstracted
face of the Left Bower at the door. Ten minutes had passed in this
occupation, the Judge and Union Mills conversing in the furtive
whispers of children unavoidably but fascinatedly present at a
family quarrel, when a light step was heard upon the crackling
brushwood outside, and the bright panting face of the Old Man
appeared upon the threshold. There was a shout of joy; in another
moment he was half-buried in the bosom of the Right Bower's shirt,
half-dragged into the lap of the Judge, upsetting the barrel, and
completely encompassed by the Left Bower and Union Mills. With the
enthusiastic utterance of his name the spell was broken.
Happily unconscious of the previous excitement that had provoked
this spontaneous unanimity of greeting, the Old Man, equally
relieved, at once broke into a feverish announcement of his
discovery. He painted the details, with, I fear, a slight
exaggeration of coloring, due partly to his own excitement, and
partly to justify their own. But he was strangely conscious that
these bankrupt men appeared less elated with their personal interest
in their stroke of fortune than with his own success. "I told you
he'd do it," said the Judge, with a reckless unscrupulousness of
statement that carried everybody with it; "look at him! the game
little pup." "Oh no! he ain't the right breed, is he?" echoed Union
Mills with arch irony, while the Right and Left Bower, grasping
either hand, pressed a proud but silent greeting that was half new
to him, but wholly delicious. It was not without difficulty that he
could at last prevail upon them to return with him to the scene of
his discovery, or even then restrain them from attempting to carry
him thither on their shoulders on the plea of his previous prolonged
exertions. Once only there was a momentary embarrassment. "Then
you fired that shot to bring me back?" said the Old Man, gratefully.
In the awkward silence that followed, the hands of the two brothers
sought and grasped each other, penitently. "Yes," interposed the
Judge, with delicate tact, "ye see the Right and Left Bower almost
quarreled to see which should be the first to fire for ye. I
disremember which did"--"I never touched the trigger," said the Left
Bower, hastily. With a hurried backward kick, the Judge resumed,
"It went off sorter spontaneous."
The difference in the sentiment of the procession that once more
issued from the Lone Star cabin did not fail to show itself in each
individual partner according to his temperament. The subtle tact
of Union Mills, however, in expressing an awakened respect for
their fortunate partner by addressing him, as if unconsciously, as
"Mr. Ford" was at first discomposing, but even this was forgotten
in their breathless excitement as they neared the base of the
mountain. When they had crossed the creek the Right Bower stopped
"You say you heard the slide come down before you left the cabin?"
he said, turning to the Old Man.
"Yes; but I did not know then what it was. It was about an hour
and a half after you left," was the reply.
"Then look here, boys," continued the Right Bower with superstitious
exultation; "it was the SLIDE that tumbled into the creek, overflowed
it, and helped US clear out the race!"
It seemed so clear that Providence had taken the partners of the
Lone Star directly in hand that they faced the toilsome ascent of
the mountain with the assurance of conquerors. They paused only on
the summit to allow the Old Man to lead the way to the slope that
held their treasure. He advanced cautiously to the edge of the
crumbling cliff, stopped, looked bewildered, advanced again, and
then remained white and immovable. In an instant the Right Bower
was at his side.
"Is anything the matter? Don't--don't look so, Old Man, for God's
The Old Man pointed to the dull, smooth, black side of the
mountain, without a crag, break, or protuberance, and said with
. . . . . .
And it was gone! A SECOND slide had taken place, stripping the
flank of the mountain, and burying the treasure and the weak
implement that had marked its side deep under a chaos of rock and
debris at its base.
"Thank God!" The blank faces of his companions turned quickly to
the Right Bower. "Thank God!" he repeated, with his arm round the
neck of the Old Man. "Had he stayed behind he would have been
buried too." He paused, and, pointing solemnly to the depths
below, said, "And thank God for showing us where we may yet labor
for it in hope and patience like honest men."
The men silently bowed their heads and slowly descended the
mountain. But when they had reached the plain one of them called
out to the others to watch a star that seemed to be rising and
moving towards them over the hushed and sleeping valley.
"It's only the stage coach, boys," said the Left Bower, smiling;
"the coach that was to take us away."
In the security of their new-found fraternity they resolved to wait
and see it pass. As it swept by with flash of light, beat of
hoofs, and jingle of harness, the only real presence in the dreamy
landscape, the driver shouted a hoarse greeting to the phantom
partners, audible only to the Judge, who was nearest the vehicle.
"Did you hear--DID you hear what he said, boys?" he gasped, turning
to his companions. "No! Shake hands all round, boys! God bless
you all, boys! To think we didn't know it all this while!"
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